The truth about cleaning with vinegar and bi carb

bi carb and vinegar for cleaning

Cleaning with a paste of bi carb and vinegar is a waste of both substances. I use both in my zero waste cleaning routine, but separately.

The advice to combine vinegar and bi carb (baking soda to my North American readers) for cleaning is pervasive and well intentioned, but ignores a basic rule of chemistry.

Bi carb is a base and vinegar is an acid. When combined, they produce mostly water and sodium acetate (a salt). Now, water is still a decent cleaner and a wonderful solvent. In fact, when I have baked on grime on my glass stovetop, my first step is to pour on a layer of plain water to soften and dissolve the soil, before following up with something like castile soap and/or an abrasive scrub brush. But if we want to clean with water, let’s just clean with water from the start. That’ll save trips to the store and money to buy the ingredients (yes they are cheap, but still).

The advice to mix bi carb and vinegar is vexing because bi carb is a mined, non-renewable resource. When we use it, better to use it properly. Furthermore, if we want others to join us in using less toxic cleaning ingredients, the substitutes must work better than the incumbents. I firmly believe that a very small collection of mostly food grade substances can satisfy all of my cleaning needs, but only when used properly.

How I use bi carb and vinegar for cleaning

For most day to day cleaning, I rely on elbow grease and diluted castile soap, which is made from olive oil and works brilliantly to remove dirt. The first step in removing bacteria is mechanical.

Vinegar is great for cleaning windows, cutting grease, and as an added disinfection step. It kills the flu virus, salmonella, e.coli and other pathogens – even the bacteria that causes tuberculosis (with the proper amount of exposure). However, I do not disinfect daily. There are good and bad types of bacteria, and nature hates a vacuum, so I don’t see the point in overzealous disinfection. I live in a house, not a hospital.

I use bicarb sparingly and infrequently. I keep a shaker bottle in the bathroom cabinet and use a sprinkle to scrub the sink (and as a face exfoliant). After I’ve mechanically scrubbed away grime and bacteria using a rag and the abrasive bi carb, I’ll rinse with water, then spray on vinegar to disinfect.

I suppose my point in all of this is to say that good old soapy water is underrated and the combination of bi carb and vinegar is overrated, and worse, wasteful.

How to recycle beer caps

If you drink beer from glass bottles, you can recycle the metal lids.

Each beer or kombucha lid is approximately 3 grams of steel. To put this in perspective, my favourite kitchen knife is also made of steel, and weighs 124g. A mere 41 bottle caps to make a knife!

For every tonne of steel we recycle, we save*:

  • 1,131kg of iron ore
  • 633kg of coal
  • 54kg of limestone

Trouble is, metal beer lids are too small for many recycling facilities. The best way to recycle them is to collect them in a larger container of the same material to ensure they are captured and processed by the sorting equipment. But what could that be?

The way to tell if something is steel is to see if a fridge magnet sticks.

Food cans are made of stainless steel. I know, I know, BPA. Living dangerously, but realistically over here. We eat canned food occasionally. If you don’t have a tin around, I’m sure there’s one in your neighbour’s recycling.

We use an empty food can to collect beer caps. When the can is half full of lids, crimp the top to secure the contents and pop it in the curbside recycling bin. The concept of like-with-like works for aluminium as well.

recycle metal beer lids


How I wash dishes without plastic

zero waste dishwashing

On the first day of Plastic Free July I was asked how I wash the dishes without plastic. We don’t have a dishwasher. I wash the dishes by hand with refilled liquid dish soap and a coconut scrubby.

Most coops and bulk refill stores offer dish soap refills. The dish soap I use doesn’t strip my hands, so I don’t need gloves. If I didn’t have access to refills, I’d just use bar soap.

The coconut coir is around $4 (I don’t recall the precise amount) and lasts ages without getting smelly like cellulose dish sponges. The texture cleans everything from cast iron skillets to wine glasses with ease.

For countertops, I use square of an old cotton tea towel and a spray of diluted castile soap. If I need to sanitize, I’ll do a second pass with vinegar. At the risk of stating the obvious, soap is an excellent general purpose surface cleaner. I wash the cloths frequently with the rest of the towel laundry.

Watch out for eco-plastic

I avoid plastic based dishwashing tools since they disintegrate through use and release microfibres into waterways. Even the supposedly eco alternatives can have plastic. Really? Yes.

Full Circle advertise a scour pad made of walnut shells and only walnut shells. Have a read of the product description below and tell me what you take from it:

full circle wanut scourer


Only when I contacted the company to confirm compostability of the product, did they tell the truth – the scourers are made of plastic! This company is blatantly lying to customers.


full Circle walnut scourer


I’ve been asking them to change their packaging and website since 2016, but as of posting they haven’t. Disappointing behaviour from a B Corporation. If Full Circle was an Australian company, my next step would to make a complaint to the ACCC.

How to dispose of end of life coconut dish scrubbies

The scrubbies are made of coconut coir wrapped around a metal bar. In theory you can compost the organic portion and pull out the metal for recycling once the fibres have broken down. In practice, I’ve never composted any of mine, because they’re all still in use.  I use those retired from dish service for other tasks, like cleaning my shoes.

What’s your best tip for washing the dishes without plastic?

How to clean tough toilet stains (the zero waste way)

Here is a beautifully straightforward Zero Waste method to remove toilet bowl stains easily and inexpensively without using bleach, a chisel, or a power washer. 

Do you have limescale in your toilet bowl?

Wait, what is limescale? It’s a hardened build up of minerals that starts with a greyish cast and can turn an unsightly brown colour when rust develops on the outer layer.

I’d never dealt with toilet limescale before moving to Sydney. Our toilet developed this cement-like stain in the bottom of the bowl and at the water line over a period of about a year, in spite of regular cleanings. It would surely bother our rental agent when we eventually moved out, but furthermore, a brownish mark on the bottom of a toilet bowl looks unclean, no matter what the reason. Which is why I took a dramatic before picture, but ultimately decided against posting it.

But you know what bothers me more? Household chemical arsenals that could be mistaken for m#th labs. I resent the ease with which we can buy harsh chemicals when a few simple and inexpensive ingredients can do a fine job.

My approach to household cleaning

I strive for cleanliness, rather than sterility, the latter of which is a fool’s errand – nature hates a vacuum. I don’t buy commercially made surface cleaners, window cleaners, or toilet cleaners. Instead I use white vinegar, bi-carb (baking soda), castile soap, sea salt, and occasionally hydrogen peroxide. All are inexpensive and don’t irritate my respiratory tract. I refill everything but the hydrogen peroxide locally and, if motivated to, I could make vinegar, salt, and maybe even the castile soap myself.

These ingredients are fine for the outside of the bowl, but I struggled to figure out how to clean the hard scale on the bottom of the toilet bowl. Scrubbing harder wasn’t helping.

While searching some forums for tips, I came across a lot of dubious advice about how to remove the stains – use hydrochloric acid / WD40 / Coca Cola, use a chisel / screwdriver / sandpaper, replace the toilet, or my personal favourite bad idea: use a power washer….indoors. Our perception of the scale of the challenge frames the level of response we think it deserves. Looks like concrete? Try a jackhammer! Who knows, maybe these methods all work, but call me low-tech, it was this one infrequently mentioned solution caught my attention: citric acid.

What is citric acid?

Citric acid is found in citrus fruits, highest in lemons. It’s used in the kitchen for jam, tofu and cheese making, food dehydration, and more. It’s what makes citrus taste sour.

I was intrigued because it sounds gentler than chlorine bleach, and if the citric acid didn’t work on the toilet, I could use it in the kitchen.

citric acid from lemon

The test: can citric acid clean my toilet?

I bought a small amount of citric acid crystals from the supermarket to test. I experimented by adding a tablespoon to the bowl and left it for about an hour. The size of the stain reduced, but it wasn’t the overall miracle I was after. For the next attempt, I upped the dose to 35 grams of citric acid (about a third of a cup, eyeballed) and let it sit overnight.

In the morning, I saw greyish patches of debris floating on the water’s surface. A flush revealed the miraculous result: ceramic perfection. It worked! All the cement-like rock solid crud was completely gone, dissolved. And there was no scrubbing, chiseling, or power washing required. All this for a total cost of $1.40 (AUD).

Zero waste toilet bowl cleaner

I should mention that in drought-prone Australia, low flow toilets are the norm and there is only a small amount of water in the bowl (as seen in the pic) compared to North American toilets.

Would lemon juice work instead of citric acid?

Yes, probably, but you’d need lots of lemon juice to get the equivalent amount of citric acid. An ounce of lemon juice only has about 1.5 grams of citric acid, and this will vary from fruit to fruit. If you live where lemons are abundant, go for it. I could probably only buy two or three lemons for the same price, so citric acid is more cost effective.

Ultimately citric acid is not the only solution.The trick is using an acid on the limescale, so probably vinegar would work too. If you make kombucha, you can easily make vinegar. If you’ve used kombucha vinegar to clean the toilet, I’d be curious to hear about your experience.

Is this really a Zero Waste solution?

I didn’t buy the citric acid in bulk or unpackaged, but that’s less of concern to me because a Zero Waste approach is more than a question of packaging, it’s an overall less is more approach.

  • The crystals are sold in crystallised form, which means less cost to ship around, and less plastic packaging to move the weight of liquid.
  • I needed to use only a small amount to work.
  • I didn’t need to buy rubber gloves or a face mask to protect myself from chemical burns or respiratory damage.

A word of caution on DIY and ‘natural’ cleaners

I subscribe to the idea that we should reduce the volume and breadth of industrial chemicals we produce and use everyday. However, please keep in mind……

Natural isn’t chemical free or non-toxic

‘Natural’ cleaners are still made of chemicals. The widespread use of the term chemical-free bothers me because it’s scientifically inaccurate and reinforces the pervasive and damaging belief that natural is always better, and never harmful. That belief is harmful. Essential oils can be toxic, asbestos is a natural substance, etc. Chemicals are not by definition harmful and natural is not by definition safe. Science is not a religion, it’s just controlled testing, and believe it or not, some science people are testing things like the impact of vinegar on microbes. Useful stuff.

Some cleaners don’t play well together

The normal rules of chemical reactions apply to DIY cleaners. I don’t own bleach, but if you do, keep in mind that you should never, ever mix acids with bleach. Citric acid and vinegar are both acids. I would suggest labelling your cleaners with what is in the bottle what it shouldn’t be mixed with. You may know what’s in there, but your children, roommates, or partner may not.

Citric acid cleans toilets easily and cheaply

I felt over-the-top clever learning and applying this little hack and am excited to share it with you. Simple and inexpensive solutions are best, because Zero Waste should be accessible for everyone. Have you ever used citric acid for cleaning? I’d love to hear about it.